Behind the scenes at Glorious Goodwood

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The Independent Online

The newcomer to Goodwood should leave the main road and instead approach from the hamlet of Charlton, huddled in the valley below. Your car creeps up the steep, narrow lane until, rounding a turn, you catch your breath. The grandstands are suddenly disclosed upon the horizon, like an elegant galleon riding some swollen, green sea.

Goodwood has perfectly credible claims as the world's most beautiful racecourse. Once you reach those stands, the panorama is so intoxicating that you scarcely notice the sporting dramas unfeasibly enacted along this giddy spur of the Sussex Downs.

Click the image above to see behind the scenes at Goodwood.

Looking to the south, across the parade ring, you see the Isle of Wight dozing in the Channel, and Chichester cathedral in its own reverie. The other way, across the track itself, the hills sway voluptuously into the distance. Charlton itself is buried from view, enfolded among the forests and cornfields; indeed, not a single building can be seen among these countless acres. It is as though the vista has been arranged on the principle that every prospect pleases, and only man is vile.

Which hardly seems the case if you survey the crowds during "Glorious Goodwood". This is the fifth and final day of the carnival, but even the gorgeous wardrobes of Ladies' Day, on Thursday, reflect the abiding enchantment of Goodwood. It has none of the sartorial suffocation of Royal Ascot. Nor, admittedly, is the racing quite so intense. But its pastoral milieu, and the ancient downland taverns that beckon later, together ensure that even those who must count their losses find themselves counting blessings instead.

It was Edward VII who described Goodwood as "a garden party with racing tacked on". He intended it as a compliment, of course. In his days as Prince of Wales, he did much to consolidate that ethos. True, the Duke of Richmond went to such fastidious extremes in entertaining him that the experience could hardly have been less relaxing.

When Edward took the train down to Chichester station, the Duke is even said to have taken the precaution of dying the train's coal white. That way, no black smuts would insinuate themselves into the royal garments. The dusty road up to Goodwood was also watered in advance of Edward's barouche.

He would always tend to add one or two names to the Duke's proposed guest list at Goodwood House - his mistresses, of course. None was more cherished by the racing public than Lillie Langtry, who loved coming here. Edward insisted on a relaxed atmosphere at the track, and discouraged the pomp of high society. He urged that black toppers be abandoned for "pot-hats", or even straw ones, and gradually established the dress code that survives today in linen suits and panamas.

The first blueblood to shape Goodwood racing, however, had been Lord George Bentinck, a cantankerous autocrat who introduced many lasting innovations to the early Victorian Turf. These included a draw for starting positions, and a flag start (instead of a starter barking "Go!"), though the enclosure for cigar smokers has not survived.

His enthusiastic partner in the transformation of the estate was the fifth Duke of Richmond. The sport had first been staged here in 1801, when the third Duke permitted the local militia to race their horses under the Iron Age camp of Trundle Hill - still a very decent vantage for those who consider the cost of admission to the course itself too exorbitant.

It was the third Duke who built Goodwood House. Intending an octagon, he ran out of money after just three sides. He had no legitimate children, but three by the housekeeper after his wife's death. The first Duke was himself conceived, supposedly between races at Newmarket, by Charles II and his French mistress, Louise de Querouaille. The dukedom was created when the boy was three, in 1675. He led a somewhat dissipated life. But then, as the present Duke himself remarks: "So many families of our type have had one like that in the middle, rather than at the beginning, and been ruined."

Under the supervision of this, the tenth Duke, the racecourse has been upgraded with deft and daring. At first, he could not get the Levy Board to support the project, blaming the former Labour politician then in charge, "who could never bring himself to make a loan to an earl". In the end, however, the March Stand was opened in 1980 - and it was, happily, years ahead of its time, serenely blending with both the bucolic and maritime flavours of its environment.

In since adding two more stands, and redesigning the parade ring, the architects have adroitly avoided any sense of violation. And those who go there today will recognise this place, in every respect, as a summit of the Turf.